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Thrive Outdoors Blog Series: Sharing learning from the Wee Garden - Inspiring Scotland


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Thrive Outdoors Blog Series: Sharing learning from the Wee Garden

This month for the fifth instalment of our Botanics Blog series we hear from Caroline Walsh an Early Years Outdoor Learning Officer at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Caroline shares her experience of the project so far and the key learnings along the way!

I came into this exciting research project full of ideas. I had a vision in my head which I have been lucky enough to make a reality in a very short space of time.  The brilliant integrated team, working together and having the same aim, have ensured our shared vision became reality.  One month after I started, the identified space was created and named ‘Our Wee Garden’.

The two nurseries involved, ONE (Outdoor Nursery Edinburgh) and Edzell Nursery, are very different. One of the nurseries come for a whole day session every Wednesday and the other comes for two, two-hour sessions two days a week.  The resources are all open ended  to enable free flow, child led and imaginative play.

My vision is to share good practice and instil a love of being outdoors to the children, which will,hopefullylast through their lifetime. There is a memorial bench in RBGE with a quote which I love; it says “to plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow”.

My own love of outdoors comes from my late father who took us out as a familyevery weekend whether rain, hail or shine, when the rain came, we built a shelter.   As Billy Connelly says, “there is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes.”

Sometimes I create experiences for the children using subtle provocations which result in amazing moments. For example, the rangoli for Diwali (pictured above) inspired a fantastic session where all the children were engaged in collecting various coloured leaves, and creating pictures of ‘mum,’ ‘a rainbow’ and sparking conversations about colour, the season, the changes to the environment around us.  The children were asked if they wanted to go out into the RBGE looking for more leaves, but everyone was so engaged in play, it was a lovely session and a utopic moment to see level 5 (Leuven scale)[i] in practice.

Finding Solutions

There have been issues along the way, but there have also been solutions. An example of this is the spa tap; a fantastic invention to save water use and wash hands where no running water is available. Under the current Covid restrictions the children wash their hands when they come to the garden and when they leave. The two nurseries have vastly different approaches to this. The issue being the site is very wet already, the ground has drainage issues, and the water is sourced from a small sink every morning. So I went on a course where I learned solutions and good practice with other  practitioners .I tried it during my first session back, what had been challenging was now a simple hand washing experience. Sometimes we need to step outside and look in at our practice to find solutions.

The mud has been another learning curve; the site is very boggy and wet. But this too brings so much learning. Like when we first started using the site, there were a lot of frogs around, so the children looked for frogs and we looked at books, learning about their life cycle, sang songs five little speckled frogs which often still is requested.

The challenges have been making sure there is a dry space. At the wettest, even inside the tent was extremely muddy! But we looked to solve the problem by raising the ground using pallets.

A combination of pallets and slabs have created a pathway in Our Wee Garden and the children have been using this in their imaginative play as a train track, using the wheelbarrows back and forward on the track and the sticks at the side of the track as the levers; wonderful!

Shared Learning

I thoroughly enjoy my job and being part of this experience has been a real privilege. Each session I am getting to know the children (and them me) better and observing them and how they use the resources inspires me. To give the children ownership of the space, we created woven willow circles and linked them together to form an arch when you enter and exit Our wee Garden. The children can now independently create woven willow circles.

To avoid cross contamination and keep things simple, we have the rule ‘if you make it at Our Wee Garden then it stays at Our Wee Garden’ and you can choose where it goes. For example threading, and willow circles. Also if you find a leaf or twig outside of the RBGE you cannot bring it in to avoid cross contamination of plant biomatter. This rule is also an important learning experience for the children as they learn about how to take care of the plants in the National Collection – the main Botanical Gardens.

The staff from both nurseries have shared that they like my ideas and have purchased willow for the children to use back in their nursery and they have also taken back other ideas such as threading and shells, fabric scraps and loose parts play materials. A member of staff commented that every week she gets a new idea to try; this was lovely feedback to receive.

After a story about fairy houses the children felt inspired to create their own, some in groups and some independently, the children add to them and look for signs of fairies.  Our Wee Garden does feel magical, there is a great sense of calm and much as I hoped that everyone would feel welcome and want to come play so far that has been my experience. The children engage well and have formed an attachment to the space and myself; some don’t want to leave!  It is so rewarding when a child who does not usually engage chooses to do so in Our Wee Garden, where they feel safe, cared for and nurtured.

Each session by the welcome pebble, I have the day, date and month, (subtle literacy) Each child has a name pebble to find and pop in the repurposed seed box at the start of each session, The children help their friends find their name too. When the pilot finishes, I plan to give each child their name pebble to keep.


What I will take away from this experience is anything is possible; we cannot climb trees or have fires there are boundaries that you wouldn’t have in any other green space, but with the right team and a shared vision it IS possible to have an outdoor nursery in the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh!

Stay tuned as we continue this blog series sharing the next part of this exciting journey on Friday the 18th of February!

Enjoy this blog? Then keep an eye for the next blog in this series where both the up’s and downs of piloting a new outdoor ELC in a botanical garden will be shared as well as the key learnings along the way!

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